Hidden heroes: Identifying the leaders of the green industrial revolution

As part of edie's sustainability leadership month, Marks & Spencer's (M&S) director of sustainable business Mike Barry has penned this exclusive opinion piece, underlining the importance of adopting a leadership approach to green business against a turbulent political backdrop.

Let’s start with a simple question: is sustainability leadership any different from more general leadership?

In the broadest sense, I’d suggest not. The same basic functions of leadership (great personal values, empathy, the ability to deal with ambiguity and set direction, assemble a great team around you) are true whether we are talking about business as usual or a new paradigm of sustainable business.

No, the real point to make here is that sustainability leadership demands true leadership, not the enhanced management that masquerades as leadership in most organisations today. Management is important. It organises, resources and delivers the basic functions of any organisation not to be sniffed at and it is certainly a basic underpin for organisational success. But – and it’s a big but – leadership it ain’t.

Management will get you so far, certainly in times of stability, but right now we live in the most uncertain of times. With hindsight, the period since the end of WWII has been a period of prolonged stability. Of course, there have been economic (oil shocks in the 1970s, decadal economic recessions), political (fall of the Berlin Wall), military (Gulf wars), business (the internet) and environmental (hole in the Ozone Layer) disruptions. But they have tended to emerge and be solved individually and be played out against a wider mood music of general societal advancement.

Today, the shocks to the status quo seem to rain in daily. The US, UK and EU have all seen dramatic and unexpected political lurches. The financial system seems unable to shake off the prolonged crisis triggered in 2007. Syria is a particularly sad example of the adage that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ ready to be repeated globally as once-steady alliances shift kaleidoscopically. The political system seems to recognise impending challenges arising from the impacts of robots on jobs, access to housing and the wellbeing implications of ageing populations but able to do little about them. And new more systemic and existential environmental crisis lean in, particularly climatically but also with oceans, freshwater and soils.

The military would phrase this new era as ‘asymmetric’; a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And it accurately describes life as a politician or business person now and into the future. So the old days of being a manager are simply not sustainable. To step into this new world you need to be a leader in the very truest sense of the word.

So, conclusion one is simple: the future demands leaders – not just sustainable ones, but leaders full stop. A statement of the obvious, yes, but a salutary reminder that we have few true leaders today.

A leader takes full account of the multiple social, environmental and economic factors that shape their future success, not just within the ‘normal’ boundaries of their organisation but flying in from all angles. And not just see them as specific issues to be managed in isolation, but as overlapping, interplaying issues, that literally need the ‘dots joining’. Nowhere is this more obvious in the food, water, energy trifecta where any solution adopted on one has profound implications for the other. Above all they solve issues together, internally and externally, managers tend to walk alone.

Leaders recognise that the decisions we make have consequences. We seem to have entered a period of ‘weightless’ decision making, where we see only the upsides of progress, for example globalisation, and not the impacts, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the developed world and the inevitability that many will dissent with the outcomes it creates. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (robots to artificial intelligence; nano to biotechnology) will pose the same challenge: embrace change but anticipate its impacts.

Leaders are able to manage trade-offs and have the confidence and ability to step into people’s day-to-day lives and explain that the actions taken on their behalf have pros and cons. This need to step out of Westminster, Brussels, the Beltway (and soon, New Delhi and Beijing) and converse with people and treat them as adults, and in turn encourage them to participate in democracy – international, national and local, is vital. And, of course, this is made difficult by the shift in the worldwide web from thing of wonder and democratic possibility to something darker and more easily utilised by the forces of reaction.

So, let’s end on a few practical ideas for sustainable business leaders.

1) Business benefit – many of us in the world of sustainable business have a strong personal value set. Never lose it, but equally don’t impose it quixotically on your business. Your whole work has to be framed around creating a better business, only then will your passion be taken to heart by your colleagues and taken to scale across all that the business does. So, delight your customers, differentiate your products, grow revenue through new sustainable products and services, motivate your people, make your organisation leaner, your supply chains more resilient. Never stop the mantra that ‘sustainable’ is better for the business, its customers, shareholders and employees.

2) Personal benefit – you, typically, don’t buy the products, develop the websites, employ the people, or drive the lorries that make up your business. Engage those that do those things on the differences they can make, simply by doing their day job differently – show them the personal (not just corporate) value that they will see from doing it more sustainably. Reward them, thank them and connect them.

3) Partnership – help your business build a culture of winning together. Show them the benefits of working with competitors, peers, communities and councils to solve challenges together. Want to build a circular business model without material alignment across your sector; common collection and sorting systems across councils? Think again.

4) Networked knowledge – to the earlier point, you need to be networked to the hilt. Not just in the classical sense of stakeholder engagement, although this remains vital, but also to pick up, digest and link the multiple issues that swirl around your business. And, above all, translate this ‘ocean of knowledge’ into a practical pathway forward for your organisation.

5) Cultural shift – recognise that the endpoints you seek are a more internally and externally connected business that looks outwards not inwards; that is comfortable with constant change. And disruption is probably exactly what your CEO wants more generally for the organisation. Position yourself as the solution to building a better organisational culture.

6) Persistence/resilience – finally, be a consistently positive champion of change whatever the dark clouds that gather around you. People look to you to be that beacon of light in the maelstrom of change – don’t let them down, however, much you may want to let rip a Munch-like scream.

So, leadership is everything in building a sustainable business, personally and organisationally. And however much you think you are leader today, challenge yourself again to be better. The true leaders never stop learning, adapting, disrupting – but they do it in a way that takes others with them.

Mike Barry is director of sustainable business at M&S, where he leads the group’s Plan A strategy

edie’s Sustainability Leadership month and Sustainability Leaders Forum

The month of December sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from skills to leadership, ahead of the Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 25-26 January 2017 (find out more and register to attend here).

Taking the conversation beyond the operational, this month is dedicated to the leading edge of sustainability thinking. We’ll meet the organisations and the individuals that are driving the agenda forward, discuss the hot topics that are keeping the UK’s chief sustainability officer’s awake and night, and showcase some of the suppliers and technologies that are driving the green industrial revolution.

Read all of edie’s sustainability leadership content here.

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